Improving live streaming

James Franklin was in Philadelphia last night to throw the opening pitch at the Phillies game. I wasn’t there, but I was able to watch it thanks to Onward State and Periscope after receiving a push notification that they were live.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about Periscope or live streaming. I still see tremendous value there and I’m still engaging with Periscope somewhere between “daily” and “a number of times per week.” Meerkat hasn’t developed in a way that’s interesting to me, and many of the key personalities that had me excited about it early on have left, so I deleted Meerkat recently.

Periscope recently added a feature I think they probably should have launched with, which is the ability to follow users but also mute them—meaning that their latest streams show up in your stream, but you won’t get a push notification every time they go live. There are many interesting people on Periscope who just stream way too many times per day, to the point where I had to unfollow them because it became intolerable. I know friends who’ve deleted the app entirely for that reason.

What I’m still waiting for, and what I think will give Periscope tremendous value, is the ability for streams to be saved permanently to your profile. This would put Periscope somewhere between YouTube and Snapchat—great value for advertisers long-term and for brands, personalities, and institutions streaming great stuff, while still letting most users stream short-term and have their stuff disappear immediately or after 24 hours.

Also seeing Periscope streams become compatible with iOS multitasking would be key when the iPhone 6S and refreshed iPads come out. Lots of great content, but not necessary that I want to engage with 100% focus.

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Physical to digital

A few months ago I stopped carrying a wallet, and switched to just carrying my iPhone, driver license, and debit card most days. Typically the iPhone is all that’s needed, but there are plenty of cases on the margin that end up requiring the two cards—usually getting into bars or getting cash.

These are the twin pillars holding up physical cards for verification and transactions, and stand in the way of Apple and others enabling consumers to completely ditch their physical wallets.

We’ll get there, but it’s anyone’s guess how quickly. I know Delaware and at least one other state is testing an iPhone app that would replace the driver license. But overall the driver license is probably the more difficult of the two cases, because it will require dozens of states jumping on board with the idea of app-based credentialing, and it’ll also require new infrastructure for police, restaurants, etc. to verify those licenses. Anecdotally, most bars in Pennsylvania seem to swipe the license through a system. That obviously won’t work with a customer’s iPhone. Ditto for cigarettes, liquor stores, etc.

On the cash side, it’ll require Apple taking the lead to partner with ATM networks to convert their machines to NFC compatibility. With Apple Pay, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to walk up to an ATM, place our phone near the screen, type in our PIN or just use TouchID, and get cash. Apple made a point to promote their work with vending machine companies when Apple Pay rolled out for similar NFC compatibility, so it seems natural to expect the same approach with the ATM networks.

Legacy, love, and passion

“If I won the lottery, I would volunteer at the Lion for the rest of my life,” said Valenti, who has served as the station’s program director since he arrived at University Park campus in 2011 to attend classes (he later switched to World Campus to spend more time with his children). “As a 40-year-old, it was kind of difficult to find an extracurricular group to get involved with. But radio has always been a big part of my life, so I knocked on the station door, found somebody and kind of inserted myself.”

Today, Valenti works alongside as many as 100 students involved in the club each semester to keep listeners — the majority of whom are digital-device-wielding students — tuning into radio, while still preserving the legacy of the station.

This is from a recent Penn State News feature on The LION 90.7fm. It tells the story of the campus radio station’s recent move to new facilities in the renovated HUB-Robeson Center.

I excerpted Valenti’s sentiment because his feelings have largely been echoed in similar ways in every generation of Penn State student broadcasters. Whether it’s the live, distinct nature of the medium or just something in the water, student broadcasting is something people tend not just to participate in, but in some respect fall in love with.

Earlier today I met with Russ Rockwell, the station’s chief operator and faculty adviser. We hadn’t gotten together since December 2013, so it was time to catch up. I filled him in on the latest Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group activities, and he shared the situation from a technical, engineering, and advising perspective.

As we were wrapping up after two hours, he reflected that despite the enormous time and money that goes into the engineering and physical plant and all the equipment that makes the station hum, what matters is ultimately whether student broadcasters have something to share.

I completely agree, and I think that perspective that the human element matters over and above the minutiae of bureaucracy and operations is something that distinguishes The LION 90.7fm among most stations.

Solitude

Jenny Judge writes on solitude at The Guardian, specifically on “the search for solitude in an internet of things.” I think it’s a fascinating topic:

Solitude has long been the condition for inspiration. John the Baptist fled to the desert; Descartes retreated to his fireside; Mahler took refuge in his lakeside cabin. Through solitude, religious, intellectual or creative enlightenment can be reached. As Nietzsche said: “How can anyone become a thinker if he does not spend at least a third of the day without passions, people and books?”

Solitude involves some degree of social withdrawal, but it is not necessarily a state of loneliness. “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude,” declared Thoreau; the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer describes it as friendship with oneself. Solitude may be enjoyed “in the midst of cities and the courts of kings”, as French philosopher Montaigne observed in the 16th century – but, he said, “it is enjoyed more handily alone”.

Developing a capacity for solitude is extremely valuable. I think it lies at the heart of an appreciation for the humanities. It’s also a competitive advantage in an era of new distractions:

Montaigne thought that the most admirable way to live was not to seek to own more, to do more, or to be more. “The greatest thing in the world,” he wrote, “is to know how to belong to ourselves.” The internet of things doesn’t have to usher in the death of solitude. On the contrary: it could herald its return.

I think the best tech becomes invisible and subtle, in the sense of becoming like a utility. Pencil and paper are examples of this. 

The “internet of things” requires thoughtfulness and tastefulness from its designers and its consumers in terms of the sort of tech we embrace. Will our homes become entirely characterized by their technical capacities, or will the tech within them be restrained and moderate in nature?

Whenever I buy some new piece of tech, a question I ask is whether it’ll represent another demand on my time, no matter how small. If it is, it’ll compete with the moments of solitude that home exists to foster, and it probably doesn’t belong.

Foreign influence

The Economist recently looked at the evolving relationship between Christians and the Chinese Communist Party:

The Communist Party is struggling to manage the only cult in China bigger than itself—the Christian church. All down the country’s eastern seaboard it is hard to find a village that does not boast a spire or tower topped with a cross. To some in the party, this is a provocation, especially in the south-eastern province of Zhejiang around the coastal city of Wenzhou. Over the past 18 months, party leaders have ordered the demolition of such crosses. But this month the provincial branches of the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Protestant Christian Council—two of the government bodies that administer the official churches allowed in China—each issued an open letter to provincial officials condemning the demolitions.

The letters accuse the party of violating its own commitment to the rule of law. They add that the incidents have damaged the Communist Party’s image at home and abroad. It is, says Yang Fenggang of Purdue University in Indiana, the first time that leaders of official churches have come out openly on the side of ordinary believers against the Communist Party.

The article quotes a Chinese Communist Party leader who asserts that Christianity there should be “independent of foreign influence.” Christ told his followers to render to God what is His, and to Caesar what is his. Christianity is itself a foreign influence on the heart. No serious politician could believe it would be otherwise for the state.

More on cultural nests

There’s been more substantial writing lately on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option concept for Christian communities. I’ve written previously on the topic from my own perspective, relating to Christian naïveté, what we might learn from American Indian communities “cultural nests,” and traits for Catholic cultural nests.

In short, the Benedict Option describes the necessity and means for orthodox Christians to rejuvenate their communities of faith, starting on as local and personal  level as possible, ideally within the context of a meaningfully Christian family life. One of Dreher’s recent contributions to this conversation:

St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other. Giving credence to Benedict’s insight in our time demands radical efforts to develop new institutions where work and other mundane activities can serve as both a means of cultivating the virtues and as a preparation for the Gospel.

Jefferson’s concept of a wall of separation between Church and State is being taken to its most extreme, which now suggests that the Establishment Clause prohibits not only the establishment of an official state religion, but also the presence of Christianity or other religions in the public square. Its effect is that faith is now seen as a pleasant, emotionally soothing personal belief, rather than one that should be present (let alone meaningfully impact) public life.

Yet the stories of the struggle for social justice in America from the founding to abolition to civil rights to the present is rife with leaders whose public lives are driven by their personal morality and religious conviction. The germ of every public law sprouts within our moral consciousness.

This is part of the background for understanding why Dreher cites St. Benedict’s insight that “the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other.” The sort of integrated life Leah Libresco describes isn’t only possible, but desirable:

Living supported by the Dominicans does more for me than cultivating piety on my own or even being involved in my church. The brothers (and the sisters studying at their school) offer infusions both of knowledge and of joy for us. They open up the faith so we can study in in greater detail, not just in order to amass more knowledge, but so that we can delight in beauty. They also clear out space for us to experience this delight. And they serve as a Schelling Point where we can find people we can share philia bonds with (“You, too? I thought I was the only one!”). I even went so far as to recommend to one Catholic friend (currently in law school) that he might want to prioritize finding a summer job in DC, so he could have the experience of being in such a rich and lively Catholic community, so he could decide if he wanted to prioritize living here, or someplace like it, when he did longer-term career planning.

The Benedict Option I wanted my eventually-esquired friend to try out was the experience of having some places in his life where Catholicism was an assumption, a community where asking if people wanted to pray Night Office on the way back from a bar wasn’t an unusual request, and there were ready helpers to lead us “further up and further in!”

If I were giving a very short answer to PEG’s question, I would say the Benedict Option isn’t about just working on being more pious (whether alone or in community) but about rearranging your life and community so there are spaces where joyful piety happens to you more often; a few spaces where your Catholicism doesn’t feel like an act of resistance, any more than eating does.

Expand the playing fields

Knight Foundation spoke with Anne Wallestad from BoardSource recently and posted a podcast of the conversation. In short, it addresses how nonprofits can have a greater impact in shaping policy if their boards are engaged for that purpose. Of the key points, these three stand out:

1. Decisions are made every day that have a profound impact on the missions of nonprofits, but too often nonprofits are not at the policy table. This slows the work of nonprofits and can compromise their missions.

2. The most useful and underused assets nonprofit organizations have to advance their missions are their board members, people who are so passionate that they have already put their time, resources and reputations on the line.

3. Advocacy should be part of a nonprofit board’s culture — the way it thinks, makes decisions and measures success.

For nonprofits with staff, the board should be as focused on its responsibility to support the staff’s execution of the mission as they are on expanding the playing fields for executing the mission. Anne Wallestad’s comments hit home as a reminder for my own board responsibilities, and I hope to figure out better ways to expand the playing fields whenever possible.

Mobile without borders

What John Legere has brought to T-Mobile is an instinct for change without caveats. T-Mobile’s recent mobile without borders change is an example of that, where customers can now travel throughout North America, making calls, texting, and using LTE data without roaming, overage, or special add-ons or extra charges.

When Legere unveiled the change, one of the data points that stood out to me was that 35 percent of U.S. calls are to Mexico and Canada. So it’s a big deal that T-Mobile is making life easier.

Another thing that stood out was that the other carriers are charging something like 120x the cost for data when customers travel abroad. It’s great to know that traveling to Montreal or Vancouver or even Niagara Falls will just work, without add-ons or extra expenses.

What fascinates me about Leger’s approach is that I think he’s applying the utility model to the cellular industry. No one thinks about their electric or water service at this point. It just works. Mobile connectivity has been largely the opposite of that since its inception—complex and riddled with caveats and surcharges.

It makes sense that T-Mobile is finding traction by acting more like a utility, especially one with a distinctive personality.

Cultural federalism

Ian Marcus Corbin celebrated Independence Day in Boston and struggled to feel much of anything about the experience. In what I think of as a sort of public confession or meditation on America, he shares some truly great reflections on America and our cultural diversity:

I believe we should shamelessly embrace our cultural balkanization, or to put it more gently, our cultural federalism. It is nowhere written that a person ought to feel equally at home in every nook and cranny of the state she calls home. If there is a deep sense of patriotism available to us Americans, it will have to be based in local soil.

Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman and philosophical father of modern conservatism, defended a sort of micro-patriotism by arguing that loyalty to our “little platoons”—things like family, region, religion, class—is in fact the “germ” of wider public affections, which ought gradually to grow to embrace our entire nation, and then all of mankind. According to Burke, these smaller loyalties come relatively easily. Love for things like nation and humanity do not. They must be cultivated over time.

Maybe he’s right, and local patriotisms are defensible chiefly as rungs on the ladder of patriotic ascent. I suspect they’re defensible in their own right, but either way, I’d add that the thinness of American identity means becoming a nation-level patriot here is not so different from learning to love all of humanity: a herculean task, a life’s work, while surely one worth pursuing. If we follow Burke, we have our climbing orders, and they are steep.

I really like the idea of cultural federalism.

Continuity

I finished Will & Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History today. It’s a short, solid, accessible book for anyone looking to get into The Story of Civilization series or just get a sense of the insights of two of America’s greatest historical scholars. The excerpt below is described as “the heart of Will Durant” and really shines:

Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and names, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible, to as many as possible for the enlargement of men’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before. It is richer than that of Pericles, for it includes all the Greek flowering that followed him; richer than Leonardo’s, for it includes him and the Italian Renaissance; richer than Voltaire’s, for it embraces all the French Enlightenment and its ecumenical dissemination. If progress is real, despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal to which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.

History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage. Progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors. It becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach, and carve, and sing.

The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it. Let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate, he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother, and our lasting life.

When the heritage of our nation, community, or family’s past is severed or neglected, the clock resets to some degree. The story of civilization is the collective story of peoples and cultures attempting to achieve greater continuity.